When I was in Leipzig – Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues


Do you ever wish that you’d asked more questions of your teachers? I do. When we’re children, sometimes we are too shy, or too timid, or  we don’t know which questions to ask. Looking back, I wish I’d spoken up when one of my inspirational piano teachers, Gordon McKeown, said to me in a lesson, ‘Oh yes, when I was in Leipzig he was there,’ referring to the editor of the music I was using. I should have jumped in immediately with ‘When were you there? Why? Were you studying at the Conservatorium? For how long? Who with? Tell me about it!’ But no; I silently swallowed the information without comment. I’ve never forgotten it, though. And when I was in Leipzig in September, I remembered it afresh, and wondered again.

There are so many musicians associated with Leipzig; Schumann and Mendelssohn spring to mind, but above all, it is Bach whom we associate with that city. In 1950 the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition was held there. Chairman of the Jury was Dmitri Shostakovich – yes, he was also in Leipzig  – and one of the competitors was Tatiana Nicolayeva, who won the gold medal. She had learned all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues for the occasion. Shostakovich was so impressed by Bach’s music and by this young woman that he returned to Moscow and wrote his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87. Nicolayeva gave the first performance in Leningrad in 1952, and subsequently recorded them .

Here she is talking and performing, and there is footage of Shostakovich performing, too.

I particularly like the Prelude and Fugue in A major. The Prelude starts in a well-behaved fashion, not unlike a two-part invention by Bach, except that it goes its own sweet way into obviously 20th century harmonic territory. The fugue is based on a broken up tonic triad of A major, and it remains benignly without dissonance throughout. The A minor Prelude and Fugue follows well, as in this recording by Richter.

So  – when I was in Leipzig, I visited St Thomas church where Bach was Cantor, gazed upon his grave with awe, listened reverently to someone practising the organ, and marvelled at the a capella group Calmus who were rehearsing Arvo Pärt for a concert that evening.

In my lessons with Gordon McKeown, we started  with a collection of beginner pieces known as  The Children’s Bach, published by Allans, with the well-known portrait of Bach on the cover in monochrome. In the nearby Bach museum in Leipzig hangs the original painting [below], and two copies, so at last I came face to face with an image I’ve  known  since my childhood. After sundry Polonaises and Minuets from the Children’s Bach, I graduated to the Small Preludes – excellent teaching pieces – and then Two-Part Inventions and movements from the French Suites; later, there were Partitas, Toccatas, and Preludes and Fugues on the agenda.

But I digress. To France next, for another Prelude and Fugue, but this time with a Chorale in between them …

Painted portrait of German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) holding the ‘Canon triplex for Six Voices,’ Leipzig, Germany, painted by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann in 1746. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


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A Plethora of Preludes – Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich

The year is slipping away – there are so many Preludes to discover! And so little time to write about them all … So here is a quick canter through a few more Russian composers’ offerings.

Prokofiev’s charming Prelude in C Major comes from his Suite Op 12, a delightful collection of early pieces composed between 1906 and 1913. Here is his own piano roll recording, and below that, the transcription he made for harp.

Each of Kabalevsky’s 24 Preludes is based on a Russian folksong. Here is Horowitz performing the melancholy No 8 in F sharp minor, and the explosive No 16 in B flat minor. Wow.

The earliest prelude in Scriabin’s catalogue  is the lovely Op 2 No 2, and  I’ve written before about Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op 9 No 1. His 24 Preludes Op 11 were composed over the eight years between 1888-1896, and there are a few YouTube recordings of Scriabin himself in performances made for piano rolls.

No 11 in B major, is a particular favourite of mine. Here is Yuja Wang:

For comparison, here are Scriabin’s five Preludes Op 16 of 1894-95, in an assortment of keys, the first in B Major. A magical ending. Far-off bells, perhaps …

The pianist is Igor Zhukov.

Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes were written during the winter of 1932-33. Following the familiar circle of 5ths, each has a well-defined character, expressed succinctly. This one in D flat major, performed by the composer, is imbued with wry humour.

Shostakovich also composed his own set of Preludes and Fugues – more of that anon.

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Happy Birthday, Franz Liszt

Raise a glass to Liszt today, on his birthday. Here he is, below centre, celebrating his 73rd birthday in Weimar with some of his students in 1884. 

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Preludes – and All That Jazz. Preludes by Gershwin and Kapustin

Following on from 1910 Preludes by Rachmaninoff and Debussy in a recent post, here are two twentieth century composers whose Preludes reflect the influence of jazz.

Jazz seeped into the classical mainstream in the music of Millhaud, Stravinsky and Ravel, and in America in the music of Gershwin. His piano concerto, the orchestral piece An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess all exude the harmonies and rhythms of the jazz age. And so do Gershwin’s Three Preludes for solo piano, first performed by the composer in New York in 1926, and dedicated to Bill Daly.

Here is Gershwin’s own recording of his Preludes.

The first prelude is introduced by two unaccompanied bars of melody, rather as if a solo saxophone were trying out a few notes. A punchy LH rhythm then propels the music on its way beneath a tune based on the introduction. It’s bright, it’s breezy, and the final scale zips up the piano with the hands a fourth apart.

Gershwin referred to the second prelude as a Nocturne. Above a moody LH figure which rocks back and forth croons a bluesy melody; think Ella Fitzgerald, and warm sultry nights. The middle part can be played with crossed hands; the tonality is major although with ‘blue’ notes still present; the rhythm is jaunty, the accompaniment can be lightly played, as if strummed. The opening music returns, concluding eventually on a major chord, but with a delayed, single flattened seventh note to add a final touch of the blues. Place it with care.

Driving rhythms characterise the third prelude, with perilous leaps towards the end. Keep them clean!

Nikolai Kapustin will celebrate his eightieth birthday on the auspicious date of November 22nd this year. He studied at the  Moscow Conservatory, but early experience of jazz influences his style, which fuses Russian virtuosity with jazz idioms.

His 24  Preludes in Jazz Style Op 53 of 1988 follow the circle of fifths. Many are technically demanding, but No 3 in G major is less challenging and a good place to start exploration.

Languid, colourful chords brood thoughtfully, with some fairly outrageous, X-rated harmonies thrown in occasionally to capture the listener unawares. It’s a real winner; I’ve performed it many times this year and have always been confronted by a string of people asking for details.

Listen here:

And No 4 follows it well – enjoy!


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Chopin In The Park!

I’m  delighted to be playing Chopin in the Park next Saturday, September 2nd, in the Walled Garden at  Holywells Park in Ipswich. The programme will include Preludes, Mazurkas, the ‘Military’ Polonaise and the Berceuse, the ‘Funeral March ‘ Sonata and two of the Scherzi, plus Paderewski’s Menuet.

Having loved the music of Chopin since I was a child, it is an honour to have been invited to give this performance. Having visited Chopin’s grave, as well as the La Madeleine where his funeral took place, and the monastery at Valdemossa where he wrote out the Preludes, it is a special joy to present so much of his wonderful music in one evening.

Book here!  


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1910 – A Vintage Year for Preludes by Debussy and Rachmaninoff

Embed from Getty Images

In 1910 , George V (above, centre) became King of England, the Zeppelin took its first commercial flight and  E.M. Forster published Howard’s End. There were Champagne  Riots in France (below), caused by the failure of the grape harvest. But it was a vintage year for Preludes. Debussy completed his Preludes Book 1, and Rachmaninoff completed  his Preludes Op 32.

I’ve written in earlier blogposts about certain Debussy Preludes; from Book 1 :

Danseuses de Delphes, Voiles, La Fille aux cheveux de lin,  Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,
La danse de Puck, and from Book 2: Hommage à S Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C and Ondine.  Each of Debussy’s Preludes has a descriptive title, found at the end of the piece, almost as an afterthought.  So let’s now look at Rachmaninoff’s twenty-four preludes.

Anyone looking for either the pattern of the circle of 5ths, or the key pattern used by Bach in Rachmaninoff’s Preludes will be disappointed; indeed, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor was published as part of his Suite Op 3. His Op 23 Preludes, of 1903,  contain preludes in what seem a random choice of keys. Look, however, at the Op 32 set, and we see that the  keys needed to complete a cycle of twenty-four are all present and correct, if not immediately in order.

Prelude Op 32 No 5 in G major shows Rachmaninoff at his lyrical best. Above a gently undulating accompaniment, a limpid melody sings and soars, the flow aided and abetted by teasing cross-rhythms. The RH occasionally crosses over the LH to add depth, sonority and resonance below. The music modulates to the dominant before a fleet-fingered cadenza and trill introduce the minor key; the sun is covered by clouds and the bass line sinks lower and lower, finally settling at its deepest with a low C.

But the sun re-emerges, as the melody, now restored to G Major, soars higher and higher before wending its way down again. It comes to rest, and a brief coda of tangled chromaticism resolves onto the final chords. Note the two-note slur – details matter!

Two recordings of interest – firstly Rachmaninoff’s own, and then a masterclass recorded at the Royal College of Music, where young Junior Department pianist Anthony Tat is put through his paces by Lang Lang.





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Raindrops on Roses? Three Preludes by Chopin from Op 28


Chopin’s Prelude Op 28 No 4 is barely a page in length, but a wealth of emotion is crammed into its short span. Above a throbbing, chordal accompaniment which changes harmony agonisingly slowly, inch by inch, note by note, sits a melody which hardly moves at all, either rhythmically or melodically. At first it lingers on the interval of a falling semitone again and again, until it reluctantly moves a tone lower and repeats the process, wearily. With an effort the melody repeatedly tries to break free, until against a LH octave B – Chopin notates the pedal carefully here – it almost escapes with an impassioned bid for freedom. It sinks back hopelessly to its former pattern however, having eventually landed on the tonic. A pause over a chromatic chord, and silence; then three chords of despairing finality.


Along with the E minor Prelude, the B Minor Prelude Op 28 No 6 was played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral. That tells us something about its mood and character.

I once overheard some lively, musical teenagers discussing their piano repertoire. One of them insisted that she was going to learn the B minor prelude to play in a competition in seven days’ time. I remember thinking that the notes could well be learnt in a week, but giving a meaningful performance might take a little longer.

Again, Chopin uses a throbbing accompaniment, but in this prelude it is more of a heartbeat, heard above a LH melody which yearns and soars like a cello – thoughts of Etude Op 25 No 7 come to mind, and indeed Chopin’s Cello Sonata, written for Chopin’s great cellist friend, Franchomme.  Towards the end of the prelude, the heartbeat gets weaker, and fainter, until it ceases.



Prelude No 15 (above) is the so-called ‘Raindrop Prelude’, so-called because Hans von Bülow gave it the title, and it has stuck. Chopin would probably have objected to the name.

This time, Chopin’s throbbing accompaniment is a single note, innocuous at first below a genial soprano melody in D flat major which flows easily, stopping to admire itself on notes of longer value.  The manuscript is revealing – we witness Chopin’s care over the RH phrasing alteration before the modulation to C#minor, the LH  then carefully  phrased as well as the RH in that dark middle section.

‘…But how strange  the change from major to minor…‘  as the song* says. The repeated note becomes ominous and threatening above low LH chords, which now carry the melody, moving inexorably on each beat towards the cadence. The melodic material gradually encompasses a wider range as tension and volume build, the endlessly repeated note turning into an octave, and then found  pulsating within RH chords. At last we return to the warmth of the major key. The darkness is dispelled.

Here is the inimitable Cortot:


* Lyrics from ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye‘ by Cole Porter.





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